Soho Think Tank’s 13th annual Ice Factory festival of new work by cutting-edge experimental companies kicks off in high style with “Fathom,” a mind-altering piece by SaBooge Theater, an ensemble that invites new respect for the craft and sensibility of 19th-century melodrama. Marrying their neogothic taste for the macabre with inventive design concepts and rigorous performance techniques acquired at L’Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris, troupe has devised its own visual language to spin this cautionary tale about the dreadful cost to humanity when science and religion duke it out.
SaBooge’s spooky style of storytelling is entirely appropriate for this bizarre Victorian tale. Set in a penal colony on the Australian island of Tasmania, it follows a hard-shell fundamentalist preacher and an idealistic marine biologist who go to ideological war over the discovery of a strange boy who can breathe under water.
Although certifiably human by birth, the child of one of the woman criminals on the island, Fabian Findley (Patrick Costello) has grown pale and sickly living on land. But while he is dependent for land survival upon his mother, Sarah (played by Adrienne Kapstein with the grief pouring out of her eyes), he cannot bring himself to give up the comfort of her love and swim away.
In Costello’s mesmerizing portrayal of his gasping efforts to find an environment where he can live and breathe, Fabian is the ineffably sad study of a man existing in alienation from all other life forms.
To Alastair Wainsborough (Attila Clemann), this marvelous creature represents a new link in the Darwinian evolutionary chain, proof of man’s adaptability to his natural environment. To Dr. Winston Cowley (Andrew Shaver), Fabian is a freak, physical evidence of the moral corruption of the “severely stunted” criminal brain. (“There are humans, and there are subhumans. … “)
The biologist wants to take the boy to London and heartlessly expose him to the entire scientific establishment for dispassionate study, rather like the Elephant Man. The preacher wants to toss him on a slab and do a cranial autopsy on his living body. Aside from his pedagogic value, neither one cares about Fabian as a sentient being.
While the moral of the fable is obvious, the production is a marvel of surprising inventiveness. With everyone in stylized makeup (and some facial prosthetics) to heighten their reactive expressions, thesps resemble silent-film performers carefully composing their faces for the camera. A melodramatic effect, to be sure, but altogether effective, given Simon Harding’s expressionistic production design. In the visual vocabulary of slow-motion action and frozen imagery, emotions of pain and distress are drawn out to unbearable length — and great impact.
(For the record, some of the most startling effects are achieved through the most primitive stage techniques. A scrim stretched on old-fashioned pulleys becomes the sail of a ship at sea. Washed in a green backlight, it sets the underwater scene for a drowning.)
Jeff Lorenz’s haunting sound design is especially eloquent at capturing the mystery of the godforsaken region, a mountainous island buffeted on all sides by storms off the Indian Ocean and the Tasman Sea.
Two onstage musicians, backed up by seamless recorded effects, contribute a continuous soundscape of seabirds, whistling winds and the relentless pounding and crashing of the waves. It’s enough to make a person go mad — or swim straight out to sea and never look back.